That’s a question that has continually plagued the Blues community for years. Supporters often stumble thru various clichéd, non-defining explanations that often leave the inquisitors even less sure of what this age-old genre really is, and with no hope of a definition.
“The Blues, that’s black folk music, right?”
“Ah the Blues, that’s like soul, right? James Brown, Bo Diddley, Otis Redding”
“Blues is that old-time music that those jazz bands used to play like ‘St. Louis Blues’ and stuff like that with horns and big drums”
“It’s funked up gospel music…it’s that depressing music about slavery…Led Zeppelin made the Blues”
All of these have some truth in them, well, except that Zeppelin PLAYED some Blues and they did not INVENT it (‘cept for some late baby-boomers). But these alone do not give the entire picture of this form of American music. We have also had the technical definitions bandied about which can confuse even the most technical musicians in the crowd…..twelve bars divided in an interesting way as to allow free-form improvisation of lyrics. First two lines are repeated answered by a line which concludes the chorus….. yeh you get that picture.
In this past few years of my personal journey thru the Blues world, I have grappled with how to give a somewhat more precise and encompassing definition without overwhelming the novice with technical notes or boring them with historical fact ad nauseam.
I believe I have found the perfect answer to the question. And it’s not in the written word, surprise surprise, it is on a CD released by Spencer Bohren, ‘Down the Dirt Road Blues, A history with musical accompaniment’. With this release, Mr. Bohren has put together a musical journey which follows one single song as it travels through America’s history and culture. Allowing us, the listener, to comprehend how these cultural and lifestyles changes affected the song’s style and sound. With it’s beginning in pre-slavery Africa, the song is seen transforming itself into the Mississippi Blues style of Charley Patton, Memphis Jug band music, banjo Blues through to country Blues, Chicago ‘Muddy Waters style Blues and then travels across the big pond to where the English Invasion picks up on it, to the folk revivals of the sixties and coming full circle with Mr. Bohrens’ personal recollections and fine version bringing us back home to our current state of Blues music.
The music is performed on age-appropriate vintage instruments, giving each life stage of the song a defining sound that does the listener well by placing them inside the era being highlighted. Mr. Bohren using the spoken word, accompanies each version giving us historical references and offering insights as to the development of the music on its journey thru time. Perhaps the best description of what ‘Down the Dirt Road Blues’ is can be summed up by Spencer himself, “My version is something like a historical novel. The larger story is true, and many of the artists mentioned are, or were, real people, but because cultural dispersion, is by nature, an inexact process, I have taken certain liberties in service of the storyline’
Listening to the tale takes just short of one hour and I found it to be the perfect vehicle to illuminate what the Blues is. There are far too many people saying, with authority, that the Blues is this or the Blues is that. What we find here is that it is alive, still evolving, growing and a most vital part of our musical and cultural heritage. By the use of this single song from it’s simple roots and to hear it develop musically does on one CD, in one hour what educators, scholars, musicians and dilettantes have not yet been able to do – give a concise ‘oral/audio’ history of Blues music in musical form – and isn’t that what the Blues really is all about – the music.
Here is a link here to Mr. Bohrens’ web site http://www.spencerbohren.com/ where you can find out more about Down the Dirt Road Blues including musical samples. In January 2010, Mr. Bohren received the Keeping The Blues Alive In Education Award from The Blues Foundation. You can learn more about his role as an artist/educator and his efforts to bring American roots music to the schools and concert halls.
photos provided by artist